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2003 BMW M3 Cabriolet

What can I tell you about the BMW M3 that you don't already know? It is simply one of the finest -some say the finest -sports sedan you can buy.

It goes like heck. It stops like it has run into a big mattress. It sticks like spinach to your teeth. It's beautifully built, although there are a couple of Internet chat rooms talking about a spate of blown engines.

What can I tell you about the BMW 3-Series Cabriolet that you don't know? It's a 3-Series, it's a ragtop -on a sunny day or a warm, moonlit night, what more do you need to know? Put them together, and the M3 Cabriolet is one tasty driving experience.

What I might be able to tell you a bit about is the SMG transmission, now optional on all M3 variants.

SMG stands for "Sequentiellen M Getriebe," or "Sequential M Gearbox." (SMG II, actually, although we never got SMG I here.) SMG II is a real six-speed manual transmission with a real clutch.

But both are activated under the control of a computer, either automatically, or with input from the driver.

Despite the absence of a clutch pedal, this is not a manually shifted automatic gearbox of the "Tiptronic/StepTronic/whateverTronic" genre.

While "Formula 1-style" may be a bit of a stretch, it is similar in concept. Its closest relative is the so-called "F1" transmission on various Ferraris and Maseratis.

How does it work? I'll describe it with reference to the photo of the digital readout directly below the tachometer.

The readout is a map of the shift linkage possibilities.

Basically, neutral ("0") is in the middle, reverse ("R") is to the left and forward; the fore-and-aft gate for manual gear selection is to the right, and farther to the right is a toggle to change from sequential (manual) mode to automatic mode.

The large digit on the left indicates which gear the car is in: first through sixth, with "0" for neutral, and "R for reverse.

(If this character is flashing, it means the car is in the process of shifting into that ratio.) The readout is so logical, it's confusing.

In the picture at right, a little arrow points to the right, to a small letter "S." This does not mean the system is in sequential mode; it means if you move the lever in the direction of that arrow, you'll select sequential mode. It already is in automatic, as indicated by the larger "A" to the right of the digital "1" in the photo.

Yes, I thought the "A" looked like an "R" too. They really should make the type faces consistent. (In sequential mode, this area is blank.) The red dot indicates where the gear lever is.

The solid arrow toward the bottom (+) means an upshift is possible. Pull the lever back, and you catch second.

(Alternatively, you can pull back on the right steering wheel paddle.) If it were already in second, you'd also see a solid arrow pointing up, indicating that a downshift (-) would also be possible. (Again, a downshift alternative is the left steering wheel paddle.) Note that pulling back to upshift/pushing forward to downshift is contrary to what most "manumatics" do, but consistent with all racing-type sequential shift levers.

The five-segment bar across the top of the digital read-out is the "Drive Logic" indicator; you have five different shift programs available here, in each of sequential and automatic modes. The more segments lit up, the faster the shifts.

Don't despair. All of this is much, much easier to work than this description makes it sound.

To start the car, you put your foot on the brake, wiggle the shift lever until "0" appears in the digital readout, and turn the key. Slap the lever to the right to get whichever mode you want, and drive away.

If you're in sequential mode, the engine will rev until you tell it to shift.

Otherwise, you can bounce it off the rev limiter all day long.

In the fastest Drive Logic setting, shifts are damn quick. I found that if I lifted momentarily during the upshift, it was much smoother than when leaving the system to its own devices.

If you approach the red line, lights in the periphery of the tachometer light up in counter-clockwise (hence, counter-intuitive) bursts, to give you an off-axis visual warning that you're getting into expensive rpm territory.

(These lights also illuminate when the engine is cold, as a warning not to rev the engine too hard, too soon.) When downshifting, the system automatically blips the throttle to make the re-engagement of the clutch silkier -great fun to listen to it work.

But in hard driving, I found I could make the transitions better still with judicious application of the throttle foot.

As a safety measure, the computer theoretically won't let you downshift if that would over-rev the engine.

If you come to a stop while in sequential mode, it automatically downshifts, to second or to first, depending on which Drive Logic mode you've selected.

To me this is a slight inconsistency: Is it manual or is it automatic? Now, you need a bit of practice to get the timing right. This is new technology, and to exploit it fully, you need to learn to work with it.

But unless you're Marc Lachapelle -a Montreal-based colleague who's the best manual gear shifter I've ever encountered -this thing is going to be better at shifting than you are.

If you don't believe me, take a close look at the head of your right-front seat passenger next time you work your manual transmission car up through the gears.

See his or her head bobble? You aren't nearly as smooth as you think you are.

In automatic mode, it's all done for you, up- and downshifts, depending on road speed, throttle position and Drive Logic setting.

It isn't nearly as smooth as a real automatic, but with minor compensation from your throttle foot, it is acceptable. In dense city traffic, you will appreciate this setting.

Again, I found the faster Drive Logic settings were less intrusive than the slower, supposedly less harsh, settings.

At any time, a tug on either paddle or a flick of the shift lever engages sequential mode instantly.

While in sequential mode, I vacillated between the shift lever and the paddles. In press-on spirited driving, the paddles allow you to keep both hands on the wheel.

But for this purpose, the paddles should be a touch longer.

At full steering wheel lock, my fingers weren't long enough to reach them; yours might not be either.

The owner's manual says paddles of varying width are available at your friendly local BMW dealer.

Then again, longer paddles would exacerbate the existing possible confusion with the high beam/turn signal and wiper steering column stalks.

If you really want to hammer on down the road, engage sequential shift mode, then sport mode: another button on the lower centre stack that sharpens up the throttle response and firms the shocks.

Switch off the Directional Stability Control and turn into a real hooligan.

I don't know why you'd want to drag-race a car like this, but an optimum starting strategy is also available with SMG II.

Engage sequential mode, shut off DSC, hold the lever forward to the downshift position while in first gear (you'd think you could achieve the same thing by holding on to the left paddle, but it doesn't seem to work that way), and hammer on the pedal.

No brakes needed. Then release the lever.

Instant Ralf Schumacher/Juan Pablo Montoya Formula 1 grid-style starts, although there is a lot less wheelspin than in the corresponding program in the Ferrari 360 Modena.

I have no doubt the SMG II manual-shift proram works better than a human. Most humans, anyway.

Some will decry it as a further erosion of the talent needed to drive a car well. These people are still whining over power steering.

There is one other drawback, which would probably fade with experience: Since so much is done for you, there's a slight tendency to dissociate yourself, to think that the system will do it all for you, that you don't even have to slow down for corners, that the computer is in charge.

This could lead to a nasty surprise at the next sharp curve.

The SMG II transmission adds $4,900 to the already considerable $76,820 price of this car.

My tester ended up at $85,000 even, thanks to stunning 19-inch wheels and tires ($2,400), which firmed up the ride just short of uncomfortable (and which had been fiended by a previous tester, either on a curb or in a car wash); aluminum interior trim ($450); and Park Distance Control, which beeps if you're about to back into a garbage pail ($430).

A lot of coin for a small car.

But especially with SMG, the M3 Cabriolet gives a pretty accurate description of "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Jim Kenzie, a freelance journalist, (jim @ jimkenzie.com), prepared this review based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

Highs Fabulous performance State-of-the-art transmission Gorgeous top-down Lows Not so pretty top-up Huge rear blind spot Engine note

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